Jailhouse justice

Pub date June 19, 2007
WriterG.W. Schulz

› gwschulz@sfbg.com

San Francisco’s popular Mike Hennessey — the longest-serving sheriff in the state after winning seven elections — likely won’t be facing a major challenger during his reelection bid this year. But a group of his deputies are being targeted for allegedly employing abusive tactics.

Six former jail inmates are charging in a civil lawsuit that they were beaten severely, left without medical attention, and forced to remain in administrative segregation for days, weeks, and even months. They originally filed suit in 2005, alleging that while in pretrial custody at various jail facilities in the city, including the Hall of Justice on Bryant Street, they were punched, kicked, or slammed by deputies from the Sheriff’s Department, which oversees the jails.

A judge, after dismissing an attempt by the deputies to have the suits tossed, ruled in December that at least four of the former inmates could take their allegations of excessive force to a jury trial. Some of the plaintiffs claim they were denied proper medical treatment for the resulting injuries, while others say they’ve endured chronic pain or injuries since the alleged attacks took place.

"The only reason these cases have come to light is because two of the inmates ended up in San Francisco General Hospital," Scot Candell, an attorney for the inmates, told the Guardian. "They were knocked unconscious."

Candell has been a criminal defense attorney in the city for 10 years, working most recently out of an aging Victorian with mismatched carpets on Webster Street. He’d never handled a civil suit before but said he took the cases, along with cocounsel Mark Marin, an attorney based in Sacramento, because the allegations represented a disturbing pattern of inmate mistreatment by the accused deputies.

He was aware of such complaints made by inmates in the past but says they were often unfounded or he chose not to take them seriously. Candell says he still believes most of the department’s deputies handle inmates appropriately. But he argues that these cases went too far and the inmates had no legitimate venue for complaining about them afterward.

"In general with people in custody, there are a lot of problems representing them both criminally and civilly," Candell told us. "They don’t have a lot of credibility. But when I saw Mr. Henderson, there was no denying that there was a problem. You don’t just get a broken back from falling out of your bed."

Earnest Henderson claims that in December 2003, following a verbal dispute with deputies involving an extension cord, three of them trapped him in a utility room, slammed him to the ground, and punched him repeatedly in the head until he slipped in and out of consciousness and was left naked in a padded cell.

He later fell to the floor twice in his cell because of a pain in his back, jail medical records show, and finally had to be transported to San Francisco General Hospital after the second fall knocked him out. There, doctors discovered a broken lower vertebra, which attorneys for the city later characterized as "minor." The city attorneys insist Henderson was inciting inmates by yelling and kicking his cell door and the deputies were merely working to contain him using only constitutionally permitted "nonlethal force."

Inmates in county custody have basically one avenue outside civil litigation for pursuing grievances against deputies alleged to have used excessive force. But the inmates complain that the Internal Affairs Division of the Sheriff’s Department didn’t thoroughly investigate their grievances, while the deputies continued working in the jail.

Voters created the Office of Citizen Complaints in 1983 to serve as an independent watchdog over the San Francisco Police Department and a place where civilians can go to protest law-enforcement misconduct. But no such equivalent exists for the Sheriff’s Department, which, in addition to managing jails, also provides security for City Hall and San Francisco’s criminal and civil courts.

Candell argues that something similar should be created for the Sheriff’s Department. Even though allegations of institutional shortcomings (such as flawed training and oversight) have been removed from the case, Candell hopes a large monetary award paid by the city’s taxpayers would prompt local lawmakers to demand greater oversight.

The suit originally charged the city and Hennessey with medical negligence and wider-ranging inmate abuse resulting from a lack of proper training for deputies. But those allegations were dismissed by Judge Vaughn Walker, who held in part that the city and Hennessey were not deliberately indifferent toward inmate grievances.

"We already know there are a bunch of allegations in this case that did not rise to a legal standing," Hennessey told the Guardian. "I believe that’s how the case will resolve itself ultimately as well."

Nonetheless, allegations by four of the six original plaintiffs, all targeting a deputy named Miguel Prado, appear likely to go to trial after brief settlement negotiations between the City Attorney’s Office and Candell deteriorated. Two other deputies, Glenn Young and Larry Napata, are also defendants in excessive-force claims made by Henderson.

Mack Woodfox alleges that in October 2005, he had an argument with Prado over a breakfast tray he was trying to give to another inmate. The two exchanged words, and Woodfox alleges the deputy removed him from the cell, took him down the hall to a different area, and punched his head and banged it into the floor.

Two days later Woodfox lost consciousness and was taken to the hospital, where doctors found he had a broken nose and broken blood vessels in his eye. Candell said the District Attorney’s Office is investigating the alleged attack on Woodfox and could bring assault charges against Prado, but a representative in the office contacted by the Guardian would neither confirm nor deny that such an investigation was taking place.

Several inmates filed declarations stating they had either seen or heard Prado attack other inmates, and two claimed Prado and other deputies beat them last year. One testified he was told by Prado to clean the cell in which Henderson’s alleged attack occurred. "There were pools of blood on the floor and a smeared bloody handprint on the wall," the inmate stated.

Michael Perez claims that in July 2004, Prado punched and kicked him after they argued over whether Perez could stay behind in a gym at the end of an exercise period to look for a screw missing from his eyeglasses. Arturo Pleitez alleges that in November 2004, Prado punched him several times, stripped off his clothes, and dunked his head in a toilet. In both instances, the city argues that the inmates assaulted Prado first, and Perez was even charged with battery and resisting arrest, but those allegations were eventually dismissed.

Messages left for deputies Napata, Young, and Prado seeking comment were not returned.

Hennessey told the Guardian that force is sometimes needed to subdue defiant inmates who threaten or attack other inmates and deputies. He told the court in a declaration that "rare" instances of excessive force do occur at the jails, and when they happen, he doesn’t hesitate to discipline or fire the deputies involved if necessary.

"It’s a difficult environment to work in…. Two-thirds or more of the people in that jail have been to state prison before," Hennessey said, referring to San Francisco’s Bryant Street jail. "Most of them are going to state prison when their time in San Francisco is done. It’s a very tense environment with very sophisticated prisoners, and the deputies have to be very sophisticated as well."

Hennessey has a reputation as a progressive who shows more compassion toward inmates than most sheriffs, but he arguably can’t oversee all of the 850 sworn employees under his supervision. Hennessey told the Guardian that he’d directed investigations into complaints about Prado’s conduct in the past, but he insisted they had not resulted in discipline, and he remains confident of all three deputies.

"Mike Hennessey is probably as good a sheriff as you’re ever going to get," said Dan Macallair, a criminal-justice expert at San Francisco State University who specializes in corrections policy. "But Mike Hennessey is one person. The Sheriff’s Department is a big bureaucracy. Law-enforcement bureaucracies tend to be very closed, and there’s a code of silence…. They don’t do well at policing themselves."

In response to the allegations, the City Attorney’s Office was sure to remind Judge Walker exactly what the court was dealing with: hardened criminals. Perez, a purported member of the Norteños gang, is now in San Quentin doing 25 years to life for murder. Henderson was awaiting trial on charges of attempted murder and eventually pled guilty to robbery.

But not everyone in jail is prison bound. All of Candell’s clients were in pretrial custody at the time of their alleged abuses and simply too poor to afford bail before they had their day in court. Woodfox was eventually released after attempted murder and carjacking charges against him were dismissed.

"The bad guards are the ones that control the culture within the institution typically," Macallair told us, noting that he supports the establishment of outside oversight bodies. "The good people don’t speak up…. There’s always going to be problems in correctional institutions. It’s just their nature. But you can at least help promote a humane, better-managed environment when there’s accountability and monitoring."<\!s>